Monday, October 18, 2010

The "Right" Eggs

From the The Cornucopia Institute’s report, Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture:

This is great investigative journalism. I have two thoughts.

One: The living conditions of 99% of egg-laying chickens in this country are awful.

Two: The recommendation to "make sure that you're buying the right brands," of eggs, that is, authentic, free-range, and organic, shows lack of concern for the millions who do not have this choice. When 1% of the eggs in this country fall into that category, when these 1% are being sold in esoteric shops and farmers' markets, when these 1% are priced out-of-budget for millions of Americans,* statements such as this are, at a minimum, tactless.

Also, has it been determined that free-range, organic eggs from small farms are the "safest in the marketplace?"

An alternative to passing moral judgment upon those who buy the 99% of eggs that are industrially produced could be to petition Congress to make authentic free-range organic eggs available to everyone. Tell them to allow SNAP ("Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program" formerly known as "Food Stamp Program") and WIC funds to be used for their purchase. Subsidize their production?

* The video shows farmers' market eggs selling for $4.25/dozen. Whole Foods Market sells Vital Farms eggs for $4 for 6 eggs.

The USDA said in 2009 that "about 1 in 5 Americans participates" in food assistance programs. Those are the ones that participate, not the ones that are eligible. These numbers have ballooned in the last two years during the economic downturn.

Food assistance programs exist to provide children, families, seniors, and others in need access to a more healthful diet (while at the same time promoting certain agricultural industries). We pay for this food assistance through our taxes. We direct how these funds are used through our vote. We currently tell our government administrators not to cover the cost of authentic free-range organic eggs for food assistance recipients.

This is from a WIC brochure instructing consumers which eggs to buy:

- Food assistance graphs from the USDA's Food Assistance Landscape FY 2008 Annula Report (pdf).
- "Do Not Buy" egg graphic from Washington State's Department of Health WIC Program (pdf) (WIC is a federal nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children). The rest of that brochure, which reflects standards in other states, is similarly eye-opening.


Dr. Mel said...

Hmmm. It is a very good report. I think one of the problems is that farmers who grow truly pastured chickens who lay the healthy eggs are themselves a small minority of all farmers, one reason being that they can barely break even. There are a number of studies that suggest that farmers' market prices reflect the true cost of producing food, precisely b/c such farmers aren't subsidized. But I hate to see those farmers discouraged from treating their chickens well just b/c not everyone can buy the eggs. Could be that the reason only 1% of eggs are produced in this healthy way is b/c so few farmers are willing to live on the edge themselves? (Btw, I can buy pastured eggs at Selene Co-op for around $3.00 doz., but only in season. Hens stop laying very much in the fall and winter, so if you want healthy eggs in winter, you have to buy them when they're plentiful and freeze them.)

I think your ideas about subsidies so more people can buy these healthy eggs are great, and the Congressional ideas are also great. But the likelihood, in this political climate, of passing legislation enabling any but the well-to-do to buy these eggs is about zippo, unfortunately, or so it seems to me. I wish I could feel more optimistic about it.

One reason truly organic eggs might be safer is that the chickens don't eat feed filled w/ antibiotics. And there are studies--can't quote chap. & verse)--that demonstrate that they do contain a higher concentration of nutrients than industrial organic or just plain industrial eggs.

Still, lots of folks don't buy eggs at all, b/c that entails cooking (as opposed to buying an Egg MacMuffin or some such). I'd say most of the kids in our neighborhood who are over the age of 10 eat most of their "meals" from the local Wawa. They don't know how to cook, & their parents don't either (and eat similarly). It's a recipe for disaster, healthwise.

Dr. Mel said...

Damn, I just wrote a long, thoughtful comment, and your device refused me b/c it said the URL is too long. What does that mean? I didn't post any URL!

Bix said...

I appreciate your comment, Melinda. It helps me think this through.

I think what I was getting at was...

The market for egg-purchase from food assistance programs is huge. Was that ~30 million people per month from food stamps alone? Not including recipients of WIC funds, school breakfast and lunch programs, senior programs...

And the subsidy for food assistance is huge, $60.7 billion in 2008?

It must be sweet indeed for factory-farmed egg producers to see how many millions of their eggs the government buys up. How sweet it must be for them to see on government brochures "Do Not Buy" organic free-range eggs.

I saw on that brochure that the government pays for corn tortillas but not ("Do Not Buy") wheat or flour tortillas. I'm guessing US corn growers and their lobby are likewise happy about that.

Food assistance is a big subsidy (including international food aid.) When we vote, we select someone who either sides with industrial agricultural lobbies, or who does not. At the moment, we, as a country, are selecting officials who side with big ag. We prefer to keep the specialty egg business marginal and, I'm sorry to say, for a privileged few.

We would have more of a dent in how eggs are produced in this country if we rattled this subsidy. Not in my wildest dreams do I think this will happen. I'm just thinking out loud.

Bix said...

I like your point about cooking. There does seem to be a dearth of it.

Bix said...

Another thought...

What happens as you scale up small-farm production? How would small-scale practices change to supply the current egg demand? Would they house more birds in a given area? Would they entertain the use of antibiotics?

If you didn't increase density, you'd have to increase surface area. Where would this pasture land come from?

Maybe we just couldn't supply the current egg demand?

I don't know. Things are never simple (to me).

Dr. Mel said...

I don't really know either. But certainly the big-ag lobbies are SO damn powerful & rich, that I doubt we'll ever face the problems of scaled-up, humane, healthy egg production. And this is during an administration that is supposed to be consumer-friendly. I just don't get it. We live in insane times, imo, and I don't have the answers to your queries. I do know that I like that some farmers take the financial risk of treating their hens well. Of course there's always backyard production, which is becoming bigger, but it'll never be big enough to supplant the cheap eggs. But quite honestly, I do believe the great majority of people don't give a damn about the nutritional quality of their eggs, or the way chickens are treated, or any related issue. So on some level we don't necessarily need to feel too sorry for those folks who wouldn't buy good eggs even if they could (and I number some of my acquaintances, much better off than I, among them--indeed (quelle horreur) even some family members).

Bix said...

I received an email mentioning that fresh eggs would be easy if we kept a few hens in our backyard.

What if you don't have a yard? I've been told you could ask your neighbor if you could borrow their yard, in exchange for eggs. Or purchase land for a community coop.

What do you do with them when you're not at home? I don't have a pet for this reason (one reason at least), because I am often not at home. People have told me their pets like being home alone. Since they are the people with the pets and I am not, I will trust their judgment.

I've watched Bill Marler erect his own chicken coop. Some of his photos:

Perhaps this is more extravagant than is necessary, but again, I don't know. I guess you'd have to heat it, and ventilate it. Buy feed. Is this what's required to keep egg-laying hens safely and humanely?

Dr. Mel said...

Cool about Bill Marler! You can get sufficient eggs for a family from maybe 3 or 4 backyard hens. I have several friends in Media who do this. If you go away, though, you do need to get someone to come in once or twice a day to open up their coop, then put them back in at night. Cold-wise, they're quite hardy--I've read that a single light bulb left on in the coop on winter nights (at least in zone 6) is sufficient warmth for them.

In the spring, summer, and early fall, they can forage in your yard for insects and grasses, weeds, etc. (in other words, "pasture"). They also will eat many veggie kitchen scraps--one friend of mine also raises chard for her chickens, and they love it, and the yolks of their eggs are bright orange!--lots of nutritional goodness).

But in the fall, their egg-laying tapers off for the winter--you might get the occasional egg, but not a lot. And you need to supplement their food sources in winter w/ some grain, hay, etc. I don't know all the details of it, though I've toyed w/ the idea of getting some (but w/ the other ailing pets we have at the moment, this probably isn't the time).

The idea that pets (whether dogs, cats, chickens, whatever) like to be left home alone while "owners" vacation is utter bullshit. Having animal companions is not to be taken lightly--it's a big commitment time-wise and money-wide, but it's so rewarding emotionally. (Sorry to sound preachy.)

Dr. Mel said...

Equipping yourself to have a few chickens can be done for a LOT less money than the $5000 Marler has spent. That's a luxury coop!

Dr. Mel said...

The comments under Marler's chicken posts (Coop de Ville indeed!) are hilarious, as well as informative!

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Notice what is glaringly absent in that seemingly complete analysis of the egg industry by the Cornucopia Institute.

Large or small, free-range or confined, organic or not, due to the accepted practice of breeding for two traits in chickens, one for meat and one for egg-laying, around 200 million* per male chicks are hatched and destroyed every year (*I think that’s just a US figure).

I don’t link that as just an animal abuse shock video. That really is business as usual for hatcheries that supply every type of egg producer, from large agribusiness, to mail-order hens for backyard enthusiasts. It would be the rare farm exception that didn’t receive their hens from such facilities. The farmer would face the same problem of having male chicks whose bodies aren’t the meat-laden breed that customers are conditioned to prefer.

He’s an article that specifically addresses the problem with backyard hen suppliers, with only one supplier claiming that the cockerels aren’t outright destroyed (though the article author raised questions against this claim).

Since sexing chickens isn’t perfect, roosters are ending up being abandoned just like other unwanted domestic animals.

Most shoppers probably don’t know that current egg production necessitates such a system, and even someone that isn’t an animal rights activist would probably feel uncomfortable with the situation.

If those of us that accept the situation with a shoulder shrug were on a farm and witnessed a chicken’s egg hatch, even knowing that he was a food animal, we would most likely handle the chick carefully and tenderly, and would admonish anyone nearby that wanted to abruptly snuff out the newborn chick’s life.

Yeah, we’re weird with animals.

Bix said... I just watched the video you linked to, Ben:

It's unbelievably disturbing. And then, what happens to the "protein" that gets discarded? I hate to say this ... pet food?